"Hillel said: Be like the disciples of Aaron the Priest – Love peace and pursue peace, love your fellows and bring them close to God's teachings." Pirke Avot 1:12 (from Sayings of the Fathers, a Jewish ethical work from antiquity).
With all the religious strife in countries around the world, how is it that in the United States, religions are generally quite tolerant of one another? Why is it that among religious groups in the U.S., Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims are the least liked in survey after survey?
Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell recently published a book that explores answers to these and other questions about religious diversity in this country.
One of their conclusions: We tend to get along because, "Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths. Americans have, on average, at least two friends who don't share their faith, and at least one extended family member who does not."
It turns out that getting to know someone of a different faith tends to humanize that faith. If your group is both small and geographically isolated, most Americans don't get to know someone from your group. Because Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims are relatively few in number or live in isolated communities, they fair poorly when it comes to the likability scale. Islam further suffers because of the perceived associations to nine-eleven.
If this holds true in the United States among Americans, how much more true is it in Israel, where Israeli Jews are separated from Palestinians in the territories and where there is an innate fear of anyone from the other side.
This makes all the more remarkable the meeting of the Chicago Board of Rabbis that I attended last week where we met members of the Parents Circle Family Forum, Robi Damelin and Mazen Faraj. PCFF is a grassroots organization of more than five hundred families, half Israeli and half Palestinian, who have all lost immediate family members to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Robi Damelin's son David was killed in action while on patrol in the West Bank. He was 21 years old. Abu Ali's father was killed in Bethlehem in the crossfire between Israeli troops and Palestinians. PCFF is not affiliated with any political party.
In fact, says Robi Damelin, "The 'powers to be' told us there was no one to talk to." Yet, the families in this group all found one another. Recognizing that an end to the conflict does not mean peace – witness the "cold peace" between Egypt and Israel -- the group hopes to use their experience to establish a framework for reconciliation once a political settlement is reached.
Mazen Faraj spoke movingly about the death of his father and the void that this left in his family's life. He spoke of his immediate reaction. "When someone kills someone in your family," he said, "You have to kill someone back. Through participation in this group, I learned the true meaning of forgiveness. Forgiveness means giving up your just right for revenge."
Robi , the Israeli woman, continued. "Continuing to be a 'victim' ruins your life. It is possible to talk, but it is really difficult. We meet, Palestinians and Israelis, in our suffering and in our pain."
The two speakers laid out the stark choices that confront the two sides in the conflict. "We either continue to kill each other, or we somehow learn to understand one another and live together." They are not advocating any particular political solution, but they represent the hope that a solution and reconciliation between the two sides can be had. "I meet so I can understand the pain of my enemy," said Mazen Faraj.
The group is currently involved in what they term "the narrative project." Understand that the founding of the State of Israel has different meaning to the Palestinians and to the Israelis.
For the Jewish people, the establishment of the State of Israel represents a return to our ancestral homeland. It is the righting of an historical wrong. In the "ingathering of the exiles" we find profound theological meaning. Israel is the "first fruit of our redemption" a herald, even, of the longed- for Messianic era.
For the Palestinians it is the "Naqba", the disaster, the loss of their ancestral land and the thwarting of their national aspirations. In the Palestinian narrative, the founding of the State of Israel represents an historical injustice. Those two understandings of the founding of Israel are irreconcilable. The "narrative project" of the Parents Circle group does not attempt to reconcile them. Rather, they feel that each side needs to understand the history of the other side.
Mazen Faraj said that he studied the Holocaust and the historic yearning for the Jews to return to the Promised Land. Robi has studied the history of the Palestinian people and the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a state in historic Palestine. Neither seeks to convince the other of the correctness of their side. Yet we have a rare and important model for Muslims and Jews listening to one another.
This group has spoken to over 30,000 Israeli and Palestinian high school students, and to people around the world. I was very moved by their presentation and I spoke with them afterwards. They are very interested in coming to our community. I thought bringing them to Naperville would be a wonderful project that all of the faith communities in Naperville can work on.
This coming Wednesday I will present the idea to the Naperville Interfaith Leadership Association (NILA), a group of Naperville clergy that meets monthly. We can then join The Parents Circle in being disciples of Aaron, not just hoping for peace, but actively working toward greater understanding among peoples.
About this column:
A weekly column by local religious leaders who will share thoughts about peace, faith and unity—and what it means to have those qualities in Naperville. Fittingly, Having Faith in Naperville can be found on our site every Sunday.